Read: Psalm 141
Give ear to my voice when I call to you. Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.
-Psalm 141:1b, 2a
By now familiar to us, the psalmist is once again praying to be preserved from wickedness. This hits close to home if I am honest; it pains me to admit that I relate to his plea that God place a guard over his mouth. “Keep watch over the door of my lips”, it reads. I am reminded that I can in this way save myself from wickedness. Words can be weapons if we so choose.
The writer implores God to hear his petition, asking that his prayer be “counted as incense”—ephemeral, floaty, sweet-smelling smoke. When I think of incense, I am reminded of the vague, faint aroma that lingers long after the oh-so-slow burning has finished. Is it too much to imagine that our prayers could likewise saturate the very space around God? Just think: our words continue to resonate long after the sound itself has evaporated into silence.
My dear friend Sharon Kohn, a Reformed Jewish temple cantor in the Kansas City area, inspired me to think of music similarly. She gave the children’s “sermon” once at a Presbyterian church in Houston where I served as pianist and music director. The subject was prayer, so she demonstrated by singing a brief Torah reading and prayer in her gentle, rich soprano voice for the kids. They were asked to imagine why the chanting tradition might be so important in her faith. After several long seconds, a boisterous little three year old girl exclaimed, “Because it’s prettier that way!” Well, yes! Sharon likened song to wrapping paper enclosing the prayers offered up like gifts. Indeed, isn’t the very best present even better when it’s in beautiful ribbons and bows? And how blessed we are that God hears our every prayer, sung or silent, wrapped or bare, in great exuberance or excruciating pain!
At the end, the psalmist expresses several hopeful thoughts: his eyes turn toward God, seeking refuge and defense. Evildoers become prey to their own traps, and he alone escapes. So may we, in keeping our eyes on God, thus be preserved.
Dear God, thank you for hearing our prayers and for your faithfulness as our refuge and defense. May we always strive to be the same for any of your creations in such need. Amen.